I stared at the rich dark earth, expecting something that never came. No change, just simple, barren soil. I concentrated, willing life and growth, and a green spark burst into existence. It was faint. I focused, causing small tendrils to form roots in the ground. The loose dirt shook and crumbled as the tendrils dug deeper, further under the soil.
With a burst of energy at the surface, a small shoot pushed its way up from the ground. The stem was frail, swaying by even the slightest breeze. I strengthened it as much as I could, keeping it steady despite the wind. I continued to nurture it, and it rose higher. The stalk grew in thickness as two leaves unfolded from it, branching outward. Then two more leaves. Each one began small and expanded until it was about half the size of my palm. The fresh bright leaves soaked in the rays of sunlight, the color darkening until settling into a deep, glossy green.
Next, I guided my energy into three small buds that had formed beneath the leaves. It took a delicate touch. With a slow trickle of energy, the buds burst open, revealing tiny white flowers that could fit on my fingertips. They were beautiful, but I couldn't afford to get distracted. I pushed more energy into the blossoms. They spread wide, then wilted away, floating to the ground. They hadn't fallen quite as quickly when Mother did it. It made me nervous. Had I used too much energy? Was I going too fast?
I began breathing heavy, worried that I had ruined it again. The energy started to pour out of me faster and I began to lose control. The stem began to shake and jerk. I tried to reign it in.
"Breathe, Kaia. You can do this," said Mother behind me, in a calm patient voice.
She was right. I could do this. I took a deep breath and continued despite my doubts. I grabbed hold of the stream of energy and focused on the wilted flowers. Then beneath the limp petals, I saw a green bulge. The remaining petals fell from the plant, revealing pale pea-sized berries. They started as a light green but grew redder by the moment. When the berries reached a bright red hue, I dismissed the energy. They were ripe.
I reached down, plucked a berry from the plant and popped it in my mouth. I bit down, and the cold, minty flavor of teaberries filled my mouth. I looked at Mother with my eyes wide, amazed that I had actually done it.
Mother was smiling back at me. She was wearing simple clothes; old worn leather made a skirt and top, while the rest of her was bare. Her bark-like skin matched the grayish-brown of tree trunks, causing her to blend in with the forest we stood in. Her hair was dense with vine-like dreads, and she held herself with confidence, like she knew who she was. It was something that I had never seen the Humans pull off.
She stepped forward, trying one of the berries I grew. She swallowed and then smiled. "Well done, Kaia. That was by far the best one yet," Mother said. She enveloped me in her arms. Mother gave the best hugs.
The rustle of nearby leaves interrupted our embrace. My mother pushed me behind her back as she turned to face the noise. After a moment, I felt her body relax. I poked my head out from behind her to see Father pushing his way through the dense bushes at the edge of our camp. His catch today hung over his shoulder. On the other was his bow, and at his side was a quiver of arrows. He walked up to our camp, careful not to make noise as his bare feet stepped on the fallen leaves. His skin was like mother's, dark and rough, and his short black hair looked tousled as if he had been running.
Mother let out a sigh. "Lyndon," she said. "I thought you were going to be longer."
"I thought so too, but the boar came right to me this time," said Father as he heaved a boar onto a large rock.
I stepped out of my mother's protection and hopped towards him. "Ooh! Thank you, Father. Boar is my favorite!" I said with a wide smile.
"Kaia, we owe it to the boar to respect him even in death," he said.
I looked down at the ground. "Sorry, Father."
He kneeled in front of the animal, placed his finger near the arrow wound in its side, and drew three bloody lines on his forehead and cheeks. Father leaned his head onto the creature's side and said "Thank you for your sacrifice. May you rest in peace."
With that, he drew a crude dagger and began cutting open the animal's stomach.
"You're right though," said Father. "They are tasty." I looked up to find a smirk on his face and smiled back at him.
Mother sat by the fire pit of stones that we collected from a nearby stream and began to build a teepee of small sticks. "Kaia, why don't you show your father what you learned today?"
I reached down and picked the last berry off of the plant I had grown and presented it to my father. With his hands busy preparing the boar, he opened his mouth and I dropped it in for him.
"Teaberries!" he said, "I love teaberries!" acting more like a child than I had about the boar. He chewed the berry, cherishing the taste. He looked at Mother and said, "Well, I am happy to see you are finally teaching her something useful." He gave Mother a playful look and she chuckled back at him.
Father finished skinning the boar and then ran a stake through it to hang it over the fire. I sat on a rock nearby, poking the fire with a stick. I noticed the small wintergreen plant I had grown was too close. It no longer looked as perfect as it once had, shriveling back from the heat.
When Father stood from the fire, instead of going to wash his hands at the stream like he normally would, he froze in place with eyes wide.
A voice broke through the silence. "Hello there."
Shocked to hear someone other than my parents, I poked my head up to see past the bushes that surrounded our camp. A lone Human was standing in a clearing, with blond hair cut short on the side and left long on top. His pale skin stood out against the dark wood. His hairy chin was cocked upward. He wore a red shirt that was swallowed up by a series of crisscrossing belts on his waist and chest, each holding several vials containing a tarish liquid. Father shoved my head behind his back cutting my view short.
"The polite response would be to say 'hello', maybe a 'how do you do?', but you savages were never much for manners, huh?" the man taunted.
Mother and Father said nothing. He went on. "No response, then? Well, you all must have been squatting in our woods for a long time. Heck, I didn't even think any of you Treeks were left, but here we are. And this whole time, you have been, what? Hiding in our forests and eating our game? Leeching off of our land? That doesn't sound fair now, does it?"
From the trees, other Humans spread out behind the one wearing the belts. A few of them chuckled along with belt-man's question.
"We mean you no harm," Father said. "Let us leave and you'll never see us again."
"Hah. That's what I'm afraid of," said the man. "But you see, bringing you in to pay for your crimes is the right thing to do. I'd get a nice ransom too. So why don't you come with me and we'll get this all squared away."
More Humans came through the woods. I counted at least eight as they encircled us.
Father looked at Mother. They stood in front, hiding me from the threat. "Alright, just don't hurt us," Father said. He bent down as if he was going to pick me up. He looked at me with damp eyes and gave a subtle nod. A strange look came upon his face. Was it worry? Remorse? Was he saying goodbye? In an instant, instead of picking me up, he grabbed his bow with one hand and an arrow with the other. By the time he stood with an arrow nocked, Mother had already raised a thicket of thorns, entrapping the man. All at once screams from the Humans cried out. Father released his arrow, hitting an archer in the shoulder. Mother turned to me.
"Run, Kaia!" she said. "We'll come find you, but you need to run!"
I was shocked. I stood in place, not knowing what was happening. My legs shook as I processed the fear building up inside of me. We had run from the Humans for so long. What would happen if they caught us? What would they do to Mother and Father? To me?
Mother turned to one of the charging Humans, and with a tree branch, slapped his sword from his grasp. Blasts of fire shot from the thicket of vines that trapped the man and arrows flew by us.
"Run, Kaia!" she said again, and this time I obeyed.
I ran from the flaming thicket of thorns toward the only gap in the circle of Humans.
I pushed through the bushes at the edge of camp. As I did, two Humans ran for me. A woman yelled as she charged with a battleaxe, her tight braid slapping against her back with each stride. A short man supported her from the side, holding a growing ball of fire.
The woman was closer, so I flicked my hands, snagging her foot with a root. She stumbled, skidding to a halt as I slipped past her.
I heard a loud groan as arrow impacted flesh, and I looked back to see my Father hurt. An arrow stuck out of his thigh. He pushed himself up onto one leg and began drawing another arrow. "Father!" I yelled.
Rapid footsteps approached. I returned my gaze to the Human wielding the fireball. He joined both hands together and sent a torrent of fire barrelling at me. I tried to dodge, but the distraction cost me. It blasted my arm with a surge of searing pain. The pain overtook me and I fell to the ground.
My arm throbbed. I went to touch it, but a hand slammed against my head, pressing my face into the dirt. It clenched, grabbing a fist full of hair, and lifted me off the ground by the base of my scalp. I screamed in pain as the hand pulled me up higher. The man looked me in the eyes and spoke. His teeth were rotten, and his breath was acid to my nostrils. "Even their children are ugly," he said, talking through me.
An arrow flew past me, causing a feminine groan to yell out. A faint green glow appeared in the tree above us. A vine shot down. It wrapped around the man's neck, forcing him to let go of me. He clawed at the vine noose that was pulling him upward, but it didn't help. The vine lifted him off of his feet and he disappeared into the treetops.
I stared up, but pain interrupted my shock. My arm throbbed. I touched it, feeling the seared flesh. I struggled to stand upright as I heard my mother's voice.
I looked at my mom, my face streaming with tears. Humans surrounded her as the campfire roared with fire magic.
"Run!" She said one final time, and I obeyed.
It's all I had ever known.